Civil Society, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: Controversy Over Digital TV

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 13 2006 (IPS) - The current global battle in the field of communications is about taking a decision now for one of the three digital TV standards, or postponing it till later. But in Brazil the debate involves several dilemmas and disputes that are set to run on for years.

According to the media, the administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has already chosen the system developed by Japan, which is expected to be announced at the end of this month when two of that country’s government ministers will be in Brasilia. However, activists pressing for democratisation of the media have warned that this may be false news, spread to serve economic interests.

The digital TV systems in dispute are the Japanese ISDB, the European DVB, and the ATSC, developed by the United States.

Pressure from the governments and transnational corporations with a stake in each of the systems is heavy, particularly because whichever system is finally adopted by Brazil will in practice have conquered the rest of the South American market, since the technology requires a certain scale, and therefore leaves smaller neighbouring countries with little choice in the matter.

Broadcasting companies in Brazil, which have the support of the minister of Communications, Helio Costa, have been lobbying since last year for adoption of the Japanese technology. They argue that it is the only one which ensures high image definition, interaction and transmission on cell phones.

But behind this argument lies another economic dispute, between television broadcasters and mobile telephone companies. Choosing the Japanese standard would allow television to survive longer during the process of convergence between radio and telephone transmission, Carlos Ferraz, assistant director of the Recife Centre for Advanced Studies and Systems (CESAR), explained to IPS.

The other standards would favour telephone companies in the transmission of audiovisual information to cellular phones, a market which the television networks want to keep within their grasp.

The competition would seem to be one-sided, as the telephone companies have more economic clout, with a gross income 14 times higher than that of TV channels in Brazil.

On the other hand, the telephone companies are transnationals, serving up a nationalistic argument to the television companies, in which foreign participation is limited by the Brazilian constitution to a maximum of 30 percent of shares.

For telephone companies to have access to the television business, a constitutional amendment would therefore be necessary, a factor which carries weight in the conflict.

In any event changes in the law will be needed, because at present each television company is only allowed one channel, that is, a six megahertz band of spectrum, and they will need at least two during the period of transition from analogue to digital broadcasting, which according to experts will take 10 to 15 years.

These questions mean that before any decision is taken about the technology to be adopted, a regulatory framework must be established, including a law on communications to replace the outdated 1962 code, or legal chaos will ensue, warned parliamentary Deputy Jandira Feghali of the Brazilian Communist Party.

The debate has focused on the choice of technology, and has neglected the main aspect of the issue, which is what model will be used for producing and selling digital television in the country. This will define participants’ roles and an industrial policy for taking advantage of the opportunity afforded by new technology, Feghali said.

To reach a decision “in the heat of an electoral year” is an unnecessary risk, she argued in a debate in which the minister of Culture, world-renowned pop singer and composer Gilberto Gil, also added his voice to those calling for a postponement of the decision on digital TV technology, showing that there was division in the government over the issue.

Making use of the vast possibilities offered by digital television to democratise communications in Brazil, and extending the debate in order to dig deeper, are the rallying cry of the National Front for a Democratic Digital Radio and TV System, which brings together a large number of organisations and celebrities.

Their aim is to make sure that public stations as well as educational, cultural and community broadcasters gain access to open digital television channels. So far, educational, cultural and community broadcasters have been circumscribed to subscription television, whose audience is limited to wealthier sectors of society.

For very little expense, Internet could be offered free via TV sets, which are found in 95 percent of Brazilian homes, said Gustavo Gindre, coordinator of the Institute for Studies and Projects in Communication and Culture (INDECS).

Television companies want to maintain their near-monopoly on audiovisual communication in Brazil, so they are exerting pressure in favour of the Japanese standard, while trying to keep control over the broadcasting spectrum, to the detriment of their competitors and of society, Gindre and other activists for democratic communications claim.

But the decision about “modulation,” the broadcasting technology that is a basic component of a digital TV system, will not put an end to the controversy, since these issues of cultural policy and also economics are affected by other dilemmas, said the assistant director of CESAR.

This Centre, linked to the Federal University of Pernambuco, in the northeast of Brazil, is developing software to adapt foreign digital standards to Brazilian needs. No matter which alternative is selected, the computer programmes required will be created very soon, Ferraz said.

At least part of the system, especially software, will have to be produced nationally, in order to ensure the “final quality” of transmissions. Highly sensitive digital technology is affected by temperature, and Brazil will be the first tropical country to adapt technology developed in colder countries, the expert said.

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